The Government Spokesperson Unit recently held its annual press conference offering journalists an opportunity to query the challenges and achievements of government ministries and institutions, in line with the Access to Information law.

To find out more on why the unit holds these press conferences, The Post’s Nov Sivutha sat down with its chief Phay Siphan.

What has been the purpose of holding the press conference over the last two years?

The press conference of the Government Spokesperson Unit is held to inform the public about the implementation of government policy at the national and sub-national level as it concerns decentralisation, deconcentration, and social accountability. Cambodia has developed a policy programme to strengthen public service provisions at a grassroots level.

Another point of the press conferences is to invite the public to participate in the decision making process for their local development programmes, through witnessing the discussions of commune and Sangkat councils from different political parties. They sit down and talk to each other harmoniously in various subject matters, creating understanding.

Has it been difficult to hold the press conference throughout the Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia?

The organisation of each press conference has been difficult and severely impacted by Covid-19. Notably, the press conferences must be socially distanced. But where we haven’t had obstacles was when Prime Minister Hun Sen and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng encouraged and advised communes to highlight what they have been able to do and achieve as a result of the implementation of top-level government policies. In terms of accountability, we wanted to show how well we have practiced good governance and transparency in communicating plans.

How many communes has the Government Spokesperson Unit invited to join the press conference so far?

The Government Spokesperson Unit has invited communes from all provinces, except for six. Our unit chose two or three communes across the country to provide answers to journalists. What the spokesperson is doing is explaining the concept of decentralisation and deconcentration to journalists as well as the wider public. It’s the first time we have held press conferences for commune, district, and provincial level authorities.

When commune representatives participate in these press conferences, how have they evaluated the Government Spokesperson Unit?

I believe they have supported and valued the work that the Government Spokesperson Unit has done so far. Each commune has observed and identified the benefits of the transparency offered by these press conferences for their operations.

The Government Spokesperson Unit is also preparing to hold press conferences for relevant ministries throughout the year in order to learn that what they have achieved, the progress they have made, and the problems they have encountered.

The unit has given journalists the opportunity to receive training from the ministries, provinces and provincial councils, communes, and sangkats. It’s been an environment where we learn from each other. I believe that 80 per cent of journalists didn’t know the functions of the provincial councils nor policy development, such as in decentralisation and deconcentration, and social accountability.

A press conference on local progress of communes in Kampong Speu province on January 13. Heng Chivoan

We are happy that we’ve held a free and multi-party election from the start, starting from villages and communes across the country. But it requires a constructive atmosphere where officials are able to put aside their political differences and sit down to talk about things that benefit the entire community, such as road development.

You mentioned that the press conference was held to help the government develop at the grassroots level through providing information. How does it help achieve that aim?

Currently, at the press conference, we sit down and speak with the council of every village and commune, even if the current councils may be of the same party. In the next term, other parties will sit together and talk, and hopefully learn from each other’s local development plans.The government intends to give each province or city the autonomy to build and develop. We started with the health and education sectors to positive reactions from residents because it is in their interest – a sign that power belongs to the people.

When the press conference for the sub-national conference is over, what will your unit do next?

After the commune and Sangkat, we will focus on the press conference for the one-year phase of ministries’ processes. We plan to tell the public about the progress made over the past year on that front.

At the same time, we are also preparing to invite the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to answer questions from journalists next week on the National Internet Gateway, because the Government Spokesperson Unit has to do two things – show transparency and accountability.

In this regard, we have also prepared spokespersons for all ministries and institutions in all provinces to provide opportunities for journalists to ask questions. We hope that Cambodian journalists will eventually constitute a free press. Currently, there is certainly discrimination of journalists amongst officials. Even as spokespersons, officials do not do their jobs – they avoid the media. So we solve that problem easily by putting forward spokespersons for every ministry.

Will the press conferences be a long-term initiative?

We will do it long-term because the work rotates between the national and sub-national levels. At the sub-national level, the provincial governors brief journalists on the current situation. After that, we focus on communes that are in direct contact with the people so that they can discuss the problems they’ve encountered. It encourages correspondence between the journalists, who represent citizens, the public, and service providers.

What have been the key achievements of the Government Spokesperson Unit?

Since its establishment, the unit has appointed spokespersons from all ministries up to the provincial level. The provincial level is made of three participating units: the provincial administrative unit, the information department, and relevant sub-provincial departments that work together to produce this work.

What we have prepared coheres with the incoming Access to Information Law, which is not only for journalists, but also the wider public. The law will be promulgated in the near future and will be applied to all public-facing correspondence undertaken by officials. It will increase accountability as journalists will be able to analyse the information and highlight irregularities such as corruption and so on.

The Access to Information Law will force ministerial and institutional spokespersons to take responsibility for providing, corresponding, and correcting information published or said by their institutions, because each ministry will become a window through which people can see its workings and therefore be able to interrogate its public servants. We expect that because irregularities such as corruption will steadily disappear, the ministries will respond to questions from a free press.